Kata – More Than Just Karate…

What do you know about kata?

“Kata is a set of moves you perform in Karate” most people would say. Or “It’s these self-defense moves you do against imaginary opponents”. But the truth is that kata is not unique to martial arts, like Karate. No, no, no, it’s much more than that.

In fact, in Japan your whole life is governed (restricted?) by all sorts of different kata.

Let me explain:

First of all, kata means form, or shape. Or should I say correct form, or shape. Whenever you do something in your daily life, you must do it the right way. You must follow the kata for how to do it.

For example, you can not eat how you want to. That’s really annoying. When you eat you must follow the tabe-kata – the correct way of eating. Or when you are writing your Japanese characters you must follow the kaki-kata (correct way of writing).

There are dozens of more kata, for example ike-kata (correct way of living), yomi-kata (correct way of reading), shi-kata (correct way of doing something), tsukai-kata (correct way of using something), hanashi-kata (correct way of talking), denwa no uke-kata (correct way of receiving a phonecall), kangae-kata (correct way of thinking), tanomi-kata (correct way of asking/requesting something), kaimono-kata (correct way of shopping) and so on.

Almost everything you do has a kata. In fact, hardly any area of Japanese life isn’t influenced by a kata – a predetermined mechanical process of how something should be done. Stylized, ritualized behaviour, without exceptions.

And Japanese are extremely sensitive to thought, manner or action that doesn’t fit perfectly with the appropriate kata. You probably realize that this inevitably leads to problems for foreigners.

Like me.

When I first came to Okinawa, I didn’t know anything about kata. I knew the kata of Karate, of course, but not the other kata (that I just described above). In other words, I didn’t understand the cultural molds that shape and define Japan. But I learned along the way. Everyone does.

Like this one time when I decided to go out and eat.

I had seen this great little place with all kinds of yummy Okinawan dishes, and had waited a long time to go there. Finally, one day I went. Immediately upon entering the “eating-place” (you can hardly call it a restaurant) I had thirty Okinawans with big eyes staring at me. I felt like a cowboy entering a saloon in the wrong part of town. With a squirt gun instead of a revolver.

This wasn’t a place for outsiders.

I stood in the doorway and scanned the big menu on the wall. Recognizing the sign for “fish” I pointed and said I wanted that. Hoping for the best (but expecting the worst) I made my way through the staring Okinawans to a table.

It was the kind of table where you remove your shoes and sit on the floor. Here we had one kata I didn’t know about – the correct way of removing and placing your shoes. Apparently, you always place your shoes with the toe side pointing away from you. So you can just slide the shoes on easily when you leave.

I did the opposite of course.

An old man sitting next to me noticed it though, and he wasn’t about to let that slide. When he saw that I looked away, with ninja-like quickness he reached for my shoes and turned them, placing them neatly next to the other shoes, the correct way. I felt a little bit offended at first. “What, didn’t I place my shoes good enough for you?” I thought.

But then I realized that his Japanese mind just couldn’t stand seeing something that stuck out. Something that didn’t follow the kata.

It’s like the Japanese saying “Deru kui wa utareru”.

“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”

My shoes were like a protruding nail that he just had to hammer down. Everyone must follow the kata, to maintain harmony. Even foreigners…

Anyway, after waiting ten minutes or so, my food finally came. It was a tray with several small plates on: fish, rice, vegetables and so on. I placed the tray on the table in front of me, and I could immediately see the eyebrows twitching in the old man beside me. Something was apparently wrong again.

Now guess what he does.

He mumbles something in Japanese, while he reaches for my tray, and then rotates the whole thing! Then he says “The rice must always be on the left side”, and continues eating his own food like nothing ever happened.

“What?!!”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

But apparently, this is the way of eating correctly. This is the tabe-kata. And “everyone” knows this.

You see, a life without kata is unthinkable for the Japanese. They wouldn’t know how to do, or act, and would probably panic most of the time! Like the old man who corrected my tabe-kata almost did.

In Japan, form (kata) almost has a reality of its own, and often comes before substance. Maybe I’m left-handed, and want my rice on the other side? Nope, that’s not the correct way. That’s not the kata for eating.

In the Western world, were individualism and pragmatism rules, we often say that substance should come before form. We think rituals and stylized behaviour is good as long as it is practical. For instance, compare the American boss who screams “I don’t care how you do it, just get it done!” with the Japanese boss who says “I don’t care what the result is, just do it right!

Mix that with Karate, and you have an interesting phenomenon…

I’m not going to spell it out for you, think!

Let me end with a quote (as I like to do), by veteran Japanologist Boyé Lafayette De Mente:

“[Modern] Karate is a perfect example of Japanese kata in action in an ideal situation based on total control of the mind and body, absolute adherance to minutely prescribed behaviour, the mastery of techniques designed to mount a perfect defense or demolish an opponent, and a moral philosophy that integrates peace and power.”

10 Comments

  • Ny Iago
    Hmm... As an Asian descended from the Confucian traditions of the sinic archipelago, let me be quick to add that conformity often leads to despotism. Such tradition has its plus points, but care must be taken unless they be abused.
  • Dan Gurley
    Great post Jesse! I learned something new today.Thanks, Dan
  • Philipp
    Thanks a lot for this little big piece of information. It's really interesting and well written!
    • Thank you Philipp!
  • Santana
    Jesse,Do you find the same sort of rules/KATA apply within informal interpersonal and emotional relationships?Side note: I've always refrained to communicate freely with Master Kyoshi Shoko Sato, although he's a very open and attentive person which doesn't block communication in any way. This happens because 1. of he's status and 2. fear of disrespecting him, unintentionally. Do you find communication with expatriate Japanese people easier?Thanks,
    • I find communication with expatriate Japanese people easier if you do it properly. If they are used to a Western mindset and approach, using a Japanese way of both verbal and physical communication (tolerance, respect, obedience, loyalty etc) can often make it much more easy to get them to open up and share knowledge, since they feel you are on "their side" so to speak. And once that gate of trust is open, the rest is just a matter of flowing along and taking it all in before they wake up and realize they're not actually talking to "one of their own" :)
  • Arigato, Sensei Jesse. You are one of my biggest models. Every article is so amazing, you have really came far in the kata to write and to share knowledge and wisdom. I never used to look at the last area of your big jungle of articles. This is absolutely the best article I have read in your website so far. I am also planning to buy your books.This is one of the biggest and most important things I have learned in life today from you.PS: "KARATE ROCKS"! And I don`t like chairs with an white T-shirt on it if the pig didn`t sail its green potato.
  • maja
    *sigh* this is why it's probably better for me never to go to japan. I am a perfect example of a nail sticking out. I've always been. when I was little it was quite by accident, but eventually I decided to make it a good thing (since I couldn't for the life of me "fix" it) and as a result I stubbornly refuse to follow those social and cultural coded that I think are rubbish and even potentially harmful. I'd probably give the japanese nightmared xD not that I did so much better in china. I had great fun outraging everyone by having a read wallet (I was gonna get a new wallet until my teacher saw it, ghasped and virtually screamed at me "noooo! you musn't ahve a red wallet! it means you will loose a fortune!!!"), having as many 4's in my phone nr as possible and by deliberately picking up the "incorrect" way of speaking (I picked up in the countryside accent in nanning. I absolutely loved it and my teachers reaction to it made it even better). picking up on the countryside accent brought a lot of joy to those girls I learnt it from though, they were so cute<3 (even though to them I was pretty much their white foreign pet :p) I completely trailed off here. still, japan is very much not my country, I think x3
  • Tal
    Jesse-san, how the idea of kata, goes with the idea of wabi-sabi, youve wrote about before??
  • Emilio
    One of the best articles, Jesse. very useful and important to understand the fundamental differences between the Western world and Japanese society and consequently the philosophy that permeates the people who gave life to karate and its kata. and....It is also very useful for those who plan to travel to Japan ;-)

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